Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8
Following the superscription, it is not hard to imagine David giving voice to this prayer in the Judean wilderness, on the run from his enemies.
The Judean wilderness is a hot, dry, and barren land that has little capacity to sustain life. Basic resources like food and water are scarce. In this context, we can imagine David’s physical thirst. We can feel his physical hunger. And yet, in the psalm, the psalmist’s physical needs only serve to draw attention to his spiritual longing. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
Far away from the temple, the psalmist feels spiritually distant from God. He longs to experience the immediacy and intimacy with God that he had known previously when he worshipped God among his people and in the sanctuary of his house. This, for the psalmist, being close to God, knowing God’s presence and his steadfast love is better than life itself. It is as satisfying to the soul as food is to the hungry. In the words of Isaiah 55, “Why spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (verse 2).” Instead, “seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (verse 6). In his testimony, the psalmist lives and breathes these words.
The psalmist’s desire for God is so fundamental that in lieu of eating the choicest of foods, the psalmist directs his mouth to bless the Lord as long as he lives (verse 5). In place of using his hands to feed himself, he lifts them up in praise to the Lord (verse 4). Instead of dreaming about wealth or reputation or power when he goes to bed or when he stands guard in the night, the psalmist focuses his thoughts on God (verse 6). All of the psalmist’s faculties are put in the service of drawing near to and glorifying the Lord.
While the lectionary leaves out the last verses of this psalm, they suggest that the psalmist is being hunted down and under attack from those who would seek to harm him. Given this context, the psalmist’s longing for and pursuit of God reflects a deep expression of trust. For what is strikingly absent from this psalm is any attention to the psalmist’s earthly needs or distress. Perhaps the psalmist knows instinctively that in clinging to God, God will uphold him. Words of petition and lament are not required. The Lord knows the troubles of the psalmist and the psalmist is confident that he will act to ensure that those who oppress and persecute him shall meet their just reward.
Read in the context of Lent, this psalm models a spiritual devotion that Lenten disciplines seek to cultivate — a thirsting after God. It does this by contrasting various outlets for human desire and nurturing in us a desire for God. To love and desire is inherent to what it means to be human. We don’t choose “whether we love, but what we love.”1 And what we choose to love, how we direct our desires, is often shaped by the values, expectations, and practices of the cultures in which we participate.
In North America, one dominant feature of our culture which has significant influence over what we love is consumer capitalism and the values, expectations, and practices associated with it. In such a system, human beings receive their value from their participation in a system of production and consumption. People are assessed for what they contribute to the economy, either by making money or spending it. It is a script, a liturgy even, that many of us participate in without a second thought. And it is this liturgy that directs our desires and shapes our loves to constantly want more.
Individually, we spend our lives protecting what we have and working to acquire what we don’t yet have. Collectively, this liturgy affects how we engage contemporary issues related to the environment, immigration, healthcare, and international relations. The point is that this liturgy prioritizes our relationship to stuff so that the way we think about the world, the decisions we make, the very shape our lives revolves around the impulse toward protectionism and greater and greater acquisition.
Psalm 63 functions a counter-liturgy to the liturgy of consumer capitalism, schooling our hearts in the things of God so that what we long for, what we seek, what we desire is not more of the world, but more of God. While the whole book of Psalms is meant to disciple us in an alternative set of values, expectations, and practices that reflect God’s heart for the world, this psalm is the most explicit about directing our desire away from the things of the world and toward the things of God.
“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips” (verse 5). This, for the psalmist, is the vision of the good life. And it is a vision that is painted in such a way as to nurture in us our desire for that which the psalmist himself longs, to be in the presence of God, beholding his power and glory.
In this season of Lent, Psalm 63 invites us to re-center our values, expectations, and practices on the only one who is truly worthy of our desire and our love. For as the psalmist notes, in him our restless wandering hearts will be stayed and we will find rest for our souls.
- James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 52.
March 24, 2019